Stephen Strasburg: Should the Nationals Shut Him Down or Ride Him Out?

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Stephen Strasburg: Should the Nationals Shut Him Down or Ride Him Out?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images
D-Day is coming.... What will the Nationals do with their ace?

The Washington Nationals, for the first time since moving from Montreal to D.C., are in the thick of a pennant race and poised to make noise in the playoffs. Notoriously bad for much of the 21st century, finally the bulk of top picks and minor league development has paid dividends on the field.

Currently, the Nationals are 81-52, the second best record in Major League baseball and well on their way to a NL East Crown. These 81 victories are tied for the most they have had in any full season since their first season in 2005, and the Nationals are all but guaranteed to have their best record since they won 94 games in 1993 in Montreal.

The key to the Nationals’ success has been their outstanding pitching. They are led by three young studs—Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman. They definitely have more than held their own offensively as well, but their pitching has been the backbone of their success this year. 

It is key to have a formidable 3-4 man staff in place to roll out into the intense, pitching-dominated, playoff atmosphere. On paper, the Nationals have every reason to think they can hold their own against any other playoff team in baseball. 

They have a top-line ace in 24-year-old Strasburg, who is 15-6 with a 2.94 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and a NL leading 195 strikeouts.

Should the Nationals Shut him down?

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He is followed by Gonzalez, who is 17-7 with a 3.30 ERA and 176 strikeouts.  Zimmerman, who has been babied a bit with his workload due to Tommy John Surgery in 2010, is 9-8 with a 3.01 ERA. 

Lastly, they are complimented by Edwin Jackson, who has been solid in his stay in D.C. with an 8-9 record and 3.53 ERA with 139 strikeouts.

Together, this staff is good enough to compete in the playoffs. They have the offense to complement them, and they have been pretty consistent all year. However, as they approach the playoff stretch, the Washington Nationals are facing a well-publicized dilemma.

Due to the fact that their young ace, Strasburg, is their most prized possession and has experienced Tommy John surgery just two years ago, they are struggling with a decision of whether or not to shut him down for the season after their prescribed innings limit to protect him, or if they should abandon that conservative approach to go for it all this year?

This is a very legitimate and tough dilemma to have. On the one hand, you want to protect your prized possession after his arm underwent major surgery and nurse him back into full form so that he can be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come. On the other hand, you have a team that has not been in contention in almost two decades, and has been notoriously bad for almost their whole stay in Washington since the franchise re-located. Your best player and one of the main reasons for your success is that young player you are trying to protect, and there is good reason to worry that this season’s hopes may be dashed by a conservative approach.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Davey Johnson and the rest of Nats brass are in a lose-lose situation

The Nationals declared early in the season that they would not allow Strasburg to pitch more than 150-180 innings (he is at 156.1 innings right now.) 

His manager, Davey Johnson, is on record saying that they will shut him down after two more starts. Can the Nationals actually stick to this with the public eye honed in so close on their decision making?

It’s easy to shut down or baby Jordan Zimmerman (a very good, but inferior pitcher to Strasburg) in the wake of his identical surgery when the team had light playoff hopes at best last year. But, do the Nationals actually have the balls to make this noble decision to shut down their best player short of a promising post season run?

It makes sense that the Nationals would want to protect Strasburg. A lot is invested in him. The big picture says: protect him now, and he’ll be around later. The Nationals do not want to regret overworking their ace so soon after such a major injury. It just seems like the right thing to do in protecting Strasburg for the best interests of his career.

The real problem with this decision the Nationals are making, if they go through with it, is that there seems to be some assumption that the Nationals can make another title run at any time easily in the future. The assumption is that the Nationals have arrived and are an elite ball club like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels or San Francisco Giants—teams that you can count on each year to be in the mix. 

Did the Nationals handle Strasburg right?

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The problem with that assumption is that Major League Baseball is far from the NBA in terms of teams being mainstays in the playoff mix. Each year, it seems like a new team enters the picture and makes their run with young or bought talent before they lose it to free agency or trades. 

The Yankees and Red Sox have been committed to racking up huge payrolls each year to satisfy their rabid fan bases, as have less successful teams like the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers over the years, but teams have fluctuated in their payroll overall, and few teams have sustained success.

Just consider the Philadelphia Phillies—a team that won a World Series Title in 2008. They seemed poised to win multiple championships and be dominant in the National League for years. Instead, they did not win another title, and despite their honest attempts to put all-star caliber teams on the field year after year, they only returned to the World Series one time after that season and lost to the Yankees.

Imagine a pitching staff of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt (before he declined), a rookie stud like Vance Worley, backed by a solid starter in Joe Blanton.  As good as they were, that staff did not even yield a NLCS appearance last year.

Nothing is guaranteed in this game. It is hard to watch the Nationals conduct themselves with a bit of arrogance (although prudent), acting as if they are guaranteed to have seasons like this again in the future. This Nationals team is special. They have won in every way imaginable, they are exciting to watch and they have not backed down from challenges from any team they have faced this year. This is a team that has every reason to think they can win a World Series title.

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They Nats owe it to the fans to let him keep pitching

There is no way that the Nationals can shut down their ace right now. If they do, they come back to the pack and are likely to just be another team that made the playoffs this year. The presence of a playoff run will be exciting in the nation’s capital, as these fans have endured some terrible baseball for the duration of their stay here. The ball club owes it to their fans to make an honest attempt to catch lightning in a bottle and go for it all. 

Since 2005, when the Nationals moved from Montreal to Washington, there have been seven different champions.  Only the St. Louis Cardinals have repeated. In fact, outside of the Red Sox and Cardinals winning two this century, no other team has won more than one championship since the Yankees did at the end of the 1990's. 

Some teams have consistently made the playoffs but not many, and even fewer have made consistent deep runs. What does that mean? Unless the Nationals are convinced they will become the Cleveland Indians of the 1990's, or more impressively the Atlanta Braves of the last 20 years where they were consistently able to make playoff runs without spending a ton of money, the Nationals are rolling the dice on their future.

I get it—it is the right thing to do. Protect Strasburg’s arm, protect his future and do what’s best for the player. But at the end of the day, Strasburg has been babied all season, going more than six innings only five times this season and never having pitched more than seven innings. He was very strong in his outing Sunday against the Cardinals, and he is adamant that he wants to continue to pitch.  Shutting him down would possibly deprive him of an experience of a lifetime. Allowing him to pitch deeper into the season is not exactly a disregard for his best interests. In fact, you can argue that there are solid cases on either side.

The Nationals really could have prevented this. If they had spaced out his starts like the Chicago White Sox did with Chris Sale in his first season starting this year, they could have stayed within the innings limit they prescribed and still had his services in October. I fault them for not being proactive about this so as to avoid such an “all or none” proposition.

Water is under the bridge now, but at the end of the day, the Nationals have a very tough decision to make. A lot will be said about their approach as an organization towards their players in how they handle it. What will the Nats do?

I say pitch him!  He’s a once in a generation pitcher, and no team can stare across the diamond and say “our pitcher is better than yours”. That is a luxury and asset in the playoffs.

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